Monday, 30 November 2015

We That Are Left by Clare Clark / The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

We That Are Left by Clare Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of We That Are Left from its publishers, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

I had We That Are Left on my Kindle for several weeks before I actually got around to reading it, other books that looked as though they would be 'better' floating to the top of my TBR list first. What a mistake! From almost the first page I was gripped by the Edwardian world and lives of the Melville family.

Clark's novel is set during the First World War and the years immediately preceding and following it. This was a time of immense social upheaval in Britain, not just because of the horrific loss of male lives, but also because women began to assert themselves as they had not done before and strict class divides started to crumble. All this is captured here, interestingly, through a cast of mostly spoilt upper class characters who aren't particularly likeable but whom I found compelling. I did sympathise with Oskar for much of the book and, obviously, identified with bookworm Phyllis. The other Melvilles and friends I thoroughly enjoyed reading about and appreciated seeing their world view, but they were terrible people!

We That Are Left is permeated with a powerful sense of loss and change as characters die, choose travel and work, or are consumed by grief and obsession. There is a moving poignancy to the fragmenting family, but Clark also depicts the excitement and hope of potential new opportunities. I liked how 1920s crazes like Spiritualism and jazz nightclubs were interwoven together with historic events, both war-related and otherwise. Will Carter find anything in the Egyptian desert?! Great book!

The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I put off reading The Miniaturist because it was so wildly successful upon its release and I hate going into a book on a wave of hype - I am so often then underwhelmed! Set in 1680s Amsterdam, the novel explores the hidden secrets of a wealthy merchant family as they are uncovered through a series of unexpected parcels.

For me, The Miniaturist read as two parallel books which never quite came satisfactorily together. On one hand, the historical novel of the Brandt family is wonderfully researched and portrayed and I loved picturing the vibrant trading city. We have visited Amsterdam ourselves, in midwinter, so I could remember the pretty canals and the bitter, damp cold! Burton does a great job of describing the people, their clothing and food. Especially the food! I was reminded of my hunger while reading Julie Lawford's Singled Out and The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec. The Brandt household's diverse characters sit well together although events do get rather over-melodramatic at the painting-ripping point.

The alternate storyline is that of the eponymous Miniaturist, a model maker employed by new Brandt wife Nella to furnish the lavish doll's house that was her wedding gift. As well as the ordered items, Nella receives others that confuse her. However, as she begins to understand what is really going on in her husband's house, the extra items become scarily prophetic. I liked the idea of the doll's house and the descriptions of its tiny rooms and furnishings. The possibly magical element didn't really fit for me though and I think the novel could have been just as intriguing without this plot device.

The repressive religious beliefs of 17th century Amsterdam compete with its inhabitants' greed for guilders showing everyone to be a hypocrite to some degree. I thought the female characters were more convincing than the male, especially Cornelia and Marin who are great creations. I enjoyed The Miniaturist while I was reading it, but the more I think back over the book now, the less satisfied I am.

The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxThe Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Dave's daughter Carrie recommended The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox to us months ago and it is another book that has sat unread on my Kindle when I should have gotten to it far sooner! This is my tenth book for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox is a short, but powerful novel which examines definitions of madness and the terrible treatment meted out to socially embarrassing women not so many years ago. Euphemia Esme Lennox was born in India six years after her older sister Kitty. An 'odd' child, Esme doesn't conform to social norms which exasperates her mother. She displays such outrageous notions as using her imagination and sees nothing wrong with walking around barefoot! Unbelievable behaviour! When the family return to repressed Edinburgh Society after a disastrous experience in India (I won't say what happens!) Esme's strangeness appears even more pronounced, leading her family to believe that 'something' must be done. Sixty years later, great-niece Iris suddenly discovers Esme's existence when her asylum is due for closure. Iris is summoned to the rescue of this now-elderly woman who had been completely erased from family memory.

I loved the characters in this book. O'Farrell manages to convey so much emotion and understanding through relatively simple prose and I felt that I came to know everyone in this tragic tale well. I was horrified to realise that, while not a true story in itself, the situation portrayed in The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox was disturbingly common up to at least the middle of the last century, affecting hundreds of British women. Especially upsetting to me was the hospital staff calling for 'Euphemia'. Even something as basic as Esme's preferred name has been completely ignored for six decades! And the big question of whether she is, or was, insane is cleverly answered by contrasting scenes from Esme's point of view with insights into the thoughts of now-Alzheimer's ridden Kitty. Fabulous writing!

While not actually a depressing novel to read, I came away from it feeling shocked and saddened. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will definitely be seeking out more of O'Farrell's writing.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Another month rushes past

Can you believe that it is nearly the end of November already? If we had
Sandy path near Domaine Fondespierre 
advent calendars we'd be opening our first door on Tuesday!

We are moving on to another new campsite tomorrow, not far from Perpignan, so it is goodbye to Castries. However, I found three photos taken around here on my phone that I want to share so thought I would write this little wrap-up post. We went for a shortish walk on Thursday, just around the nearby woodlands and sandy tracks, but were surprised to suddenly find ourselves alongside rocky outcrops. This area has random mini environments. One minute there's freshly ploughed deep red soil, then a dry-looking vineyard field or olive trees, then back to scrub ground that doesn't look like it can really support anything. We did find a pretty stream too.

And, having seen several small stacks of abandoned bath tubs lying around, we finally discovered why!

We worked out the off road cycleway into Castries. It does still involve maybe a hundred yards of the main road, but otherwise is quiet flat tarmac and avoids most of the hill. The turning is just outside a sports complex and is marked with green paint on the road, but looks to be heading out into the countryside which is why we overlooked it at first. We have used this twice now to cycle into town for shopping trips which seem much more fun when I'm zipping there and back on my bike. Maybe that's just me?

In other news, I am very happy that some lavender flowers I crocheted
My crochet flowers 
were featured in an Etsy treasury list this week. Thank you Shany!

Don't forget my book giveaway! A signed copy of The Judas Scar by Amanda Jennings. The giveaway finishes tomorrow (30th Nov) at midnight so there's still time to make that winning entry. Pick any of the five Ways.

Finally, if you're still trying to figure out what looks a bit different, I have changed the blog theme from tumbling autumnal leaves to bookshelves. I have added a couple more widgets to enable easy blog following too. They're up at the top right, unless you're reading this on a mobile in which case they might be anywhere! There's now a Follow By Email box - just put your address in and you'll get a message whenever I publish a new post. There's also a Google Friend Connect box - those two folks look a tad lonely up there by themselves so feel welcome to sign yourself up too! Of course, my Bloglovin follow button is still in the right-hand toolbar and, if you scroll to the bottom of the page, a Google Followers Box awaits you there

See you in Perpignan :-)

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Quick cheese scones recipe

I blogged a fruit scones recipe back in January and was reminded as we
Cheese scones 
ate a cheese scone lunch today that I had not yet gotten around to posting this recipe too. Low on health benefits, but high on taste cheese scones make a cheap and filling lunch which is surprisingly easy and quick to bake. They can also be made the basis of a more impressive meal - top a casserole with cheese scones instead of pastry to turn it into a cobbler, or serve warm cheese scones with a dainty bowl of cream cheese and another of that Christmas chutney languishing in the fridge door as a savoury version of the classic Afternoon Tea.

8oz plain flour
4 tsp baking powder
Pinch each of salt and pepper
40g butter
2 tsp dried parsley
50g grated strong cheese like cheddar or 2 tbsp of a grated hard cheese like parmesan
150ml milk

Preheat the oven to 220c and grease a baking tray (or dust it with flour).

Sieve the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. I like to use a half-and-half white and wholemeal flour mix. Dave prefers all white flour. Add the salt and pepper, mixing in well.

Cut the butter into small pieces and rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Try to keep lifting the flour as you work it. Ideally it needs to stay as cool and dry as possible, not go into a buttery clump!

Stir in the parley and the grated cheese.

Add the milk slowly, 1 tbsp at a time, then mix it in with a palette knife or similar. You probably won't need all of it. When the mixture begins to come together, use your hands to make it into a soft dough. The dough so be pliable, but not sticky and, again, try not to handle it too much.

Dust a worktop and rolling pin with flour. Roll out the dough to about an inch / 2.5 cm thick. If you have one, use a pastry cutter to cut the dough into circles. Re-roll the unused pieces back together to get more circles. (If you don't, improvise with a glass, or just cut the dough into triangles with a knife.)

Lay the dough circles onto the prepared baking tray and brush their tops with the left-over milk.

Bake at 220c for 8-10 mins or until they are well risen and the tops are golden.

Serve warm or cold. Scones are best eaten on the same day (within the same hour!) as they are baked.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Benediction by Kent Haruf / The Book Of Abisan by C H Clepitt / Beowulf trans by Gerald Davis

Benediction by Kent Haruf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Benediction is the third volume in Kent Haruf's trilogy set in the rural American community of Holt. I loved reading the first two books, Plainsong and Eventide, so had high hopes for Benediction - hopes which were not disappointed.

Benediction is set some years later so characters that had previously taken centre stage have moved on or passed on. Instead we spend our time with an older man, hardware store owner Dad Lewis, who is dying from cancer, his family, neighbours and staff. I think that this was definitely the most melancholy of the trilogy and not just because of its cancer storyline, but also due to a very real sense of Holt changing as a town. References to America being at war again and the Reverend's disastrous 'turn the other cheek' sermon were particularly poignant and timely given the ISIS Paris attacks last week and many hate-filled reactions I have seen to it.

Haruf was one of the best observational writers I have read. His creation of ordinary people is superb and I love the way he makes the minutiae of their daily lives interesting and important. At one point, Reverend Lyle says that he just wanted to see 'the precious ordinary' and that quote completely sums up Benediction for me.

The Book of Abisan by C.H. Clepitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I downloaded my copy of The Book Of Abisan after having been pointed towards it on Twitter. A feminist fantasy novel of witches, magic and multiple realities, it isn't my preferred genre, but overall I enjoyed the read.

The Book Of Abisan is a volume of prophecy, carried and studied by a witch, Yfrey, who is trying to rid her world of an oppressive dictator, Calim. Calim is a charismatic man, but one without any magic of his own and he is determined to rid that same world of all its magical beings, leaving himself all powerful. Clepitt's book is a fast action-packed ride - a complete contrast to my previous read! There is some attempt at rounding out the two main characters, Yfrey and a human woman named Jacques, but otherwise everyone is pretty two-dimensional with the novel's emphasis put on doing rather than being. I thought several scenes were too rushed and would have liked a lot more in the way of description to help me understand what was going on and why, especially once the reality hopping starts. I wanted to know more about the different realities! If that was done I would say that there could be enough plot here for two exciting novels. However, overall this is an easy escapist read and I liked the drawings at the start of each Part.

Beowulf: The New Translation by Gerald J Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I downloaded Gerald Davis' translation of Beowulf after having read his other translation of Gilgamesh which I enjoyed reading, and the historical Northumberland novel Edwin by Edoardo Albert, who mentioned Beowulf and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles amongst his inspirations. I have vague memories of Beowulf-themed Primary School music and movement classes on the radio: 'and then Beowulf and his men went into the dark forest. Can everyone make themselves into a wild tree for the duration of this interminably long piece of music?' I loathed music and movement classes!

Other than the fab Baba Brinkman rap, I didn't think I really knew the Beowulf story, but reading it here, the events did all seem familiar so I must have absorbed it through cultural references over the years. Or maybe the story arc, like that of the Odyssey and Iliad, has been reused so many times since that the original no longer seems, erm, original. I greatly appreciate being able to read these ancient stories and love that they survive and are still studied and republished so widely. This translation does end with a very scholarly essay attempting to prove links to other contemporary works and real people. I tried to read it, but had to give up!

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Petition @SumOfUs against That Disgusting Daily Mail Cartoon

I was disturbed by Donald Trump's recent comments about requiring
American Muslims to carry identity cards. To me, that immediately smacked of 1930s Germany and I wondered if Trump, or other American wannabe leaders, might go further and suggest some form of distinctive badge to be worn at all times? I am amazed at the outpouring of hatred towards followers of an entire religion, although our recent visit to the fortified Crusade town of Aigues-Mortes reminded us that such religious intolerance is sadly nothing new. And the inflammatory rhetoric I keep seeing is beyond belief. Do so few Western people really understand that These Refugees Are Risking Everything To Escape From ISIS and civil war? They need our help, not our anger.

I have also heard that our dear Tory government is threatening to spend British taxpayers money on further bombing of Syria, despite overwhelming evidence from elsewhere that such aggression may well end up causing even more chaos in this war torn country and, therefore, resulting in even more refugees. I have emailed my MP, Kerry McCarthy, via this Care2 petition asking her to take a stand against such shortsighted madness.

We seem to be plunging headlong into 1984.

This morning I received an email from SumOfUs drawing my attention to a disgusting cartoon published in The Daily Mail and asking for signatures to a petition demanding apologies and removal of the cartoon. I am not going to republish here as I am sure that, if you haven't already seen it, the image will be easy enough to Google. I know The Daily Mail has a history of supporting fascism, but to see this kind of blatant bigotry in a mainstream British 'newspaper' in the 21st century turns my stomach. This is not representative of my country.

SumOfUs said "The Daily Mail published a racist editorial cartoon that suggests Syrian refugees are ISIS terrorists - depicting them as rats. It's imagery right out of 1939 Germany. Literally. Tell the Daily Mail to withdraw the cartoon and apologise now.

Millions of people are fleeing a brutally oppressive regime and almost certain extermination. And The Daily Mail depicts these people as rats and mocks their desperation. It’s appalling and hard to believe, but true. The Daily Mail published a cartoon depicting Syrian refugees, one carrying a rifle, and a throng of rats streaming into Europe. It closely resembles an infamous piece of 1939 Nazi propaganda depicting Jewish people as rats shut out from democratic countries after escaping Hitler.

There is no excuse for this hateful, dehumanising cartoon. Tell The Daily Mail to apologise and withdraw the image. Anti-immigrant forces across Europe have already been trying to demonise and dehumanise the four million Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS and a catastrophic civil war back home. With the recent Paris attacks, that trend has only increased. For The Daily Mail to join in, with imagery literally used by the Nazis, is beneath contempt.

The Daily Mail has been here before. It ran articles supporting fascism, the rise of Hitler and Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, and later whipped up a frenzy of fear when Jewish refugees were seeking shelter in the UK fleeing the Nazis. Now the Mail has turned its hatred on Syrians fleeing war, violence and persecution. We can’t let the Mail’s portrayal of desperate people to stand unchallenged. Join us in demanding that The Daily Mail take responsibility for its cartoon that could have come straight out of Nazi Germany.

Thanks for all you do, Martin, Hanna, and the rest of the SumOfUs team"

Please sign the SumOfUs petition.

Please sign the Care2 petition and email your MP.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

I love to ride my bicycle! Sussargues and Castries + cycling travel blogs linkup

It's turned distinctly chilly here in Castries for the past couple of days - a
By a disused well in Sussargues 
nippiness not helped by a persistent wind from the north. We had planned to go cycling yesterday, but plumped for caravan coziness instead. However, when today dawned bright, sunny and wind-free (not that I would know. I didn't wake up until gone nine!) Dave suggested a couple of hours cycling around the local towns.

Long-term blog readers will know that I only bought my lovely not-so-new-anymore B-Fold bike in Roquetas Decathlon last January having previously lost my nerve and not cycled for several years. I still can't explain this impulse purchase and why my then-usual panic didn't kick in when I tried to ride. I am now so glad that it didn't though! I do still have willocky moments, but my confidence is growing ride by ride and I love the sense of freedom. I am sure that I get a stronger sense of a place from having cycled around it than having just zipped through in a car.

Today we cycled for about two hours starting from our Castries
Castries old olive mill which is now the Mairie 
campsite, going out through Sussargues and as far as Saint-Drezery before heading back into Castries town for a little shopping and a well-earned coffee. The D26E3 from the D21 towards Castries is a superb road for a not-so-fit cyclist - a challenging but not outrageously strenuous uphill for a short distance then a long gentle descent on a nice flat surface with beautiful views and plenty of time to spot infrequent traffic. Bliss! Most of this area would be considered flat by car drivers and isn't too hilly on a bike. I only got off to push the very top of a hill once - out of Saint-Drezery - and the others allowed us a good sense of achievement. We certainly kept ourselves warm!


Monday, 23 November 2015

The Judas Scar by Amanda Jennings + Giveaway / The Piper's Story by Wendy Isaac Bergin / The Western Lonesome Society by Robert Garner McBrearty

The Judas Scar by Amanda Jennings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of The Judas Scar directly from Amanda Jennings as a prize via Sophie's Reviewed The Book blog. Sophie wrote such an enthusiastic review that I was keen to read this thriller too, but have had to wait until I could pick it up from Bristol first! Now, as we really don't have room to keep books 'forever' in our caravan and I don't want to just leave this signed edition on some campsite book exchange somewhere, I thought it would be fun to offer the book as a Giveaway to my blog readers - it was read so carefully, it is in practically pristine condition! Details of how you can enter to win it are at the end of the post ... after the Amazon ads.

The Judas Scar is a tense psychological thriller which looks at the aftermath of extreme childhood trauma and the varying ways in which adult lives are dictated by the events of the past. Jennings has created superbly real characters, both male and female, who are very believable - in a couple of cases, frighteningly so! Our 'heroes', Will and Harmony, have been happily married for twenty years. They had agreed to remain childless at Will's insistence and The Judas Scar begins by examining the emotional fallout when Harmony accidentally becomes pregnant - and then loses the baby. She is understandably devastated and bewildered by Will's apparent lack of equal distress. I suspect that readers are supposed to identify with Harmony, however I found my sympathies lay with Will. After two decades of happy marriage, I can't think I would be overjoyed at the news that something I thought was agreed upon had suddenly been completely overturned. It's certainly a thought-provoking storyline.

Jennings' uncovering of Will's paternal reluctance provides the exciting driving force of the thriller story when a blast from the past unexpectedly reappears in his life. Disturbing secrets are uncovered and I enjoyed the unpredictability of this part of the book. Perhaps the ending is too abrupt because I would have liked to have known more about what happens to everyone involved, however the whole story arc is satisfying to read.

The Piper's Story: A Tale of War, Music, and the SupernaturalThe Piper's Story by Wendy Isaac Bergin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my Top Ten Books of 2015

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I downloaded a copy of The Piper's Story by Wendy Isaac Bergin when it was featured in a Noisetrade newsletter. This is my ninth book for the Read Scotland Challenge 2015. I liked by the cover art and was intrigued by the premise which struck me as being different from the horror norm. The Piper's Story is quite different and is one of those books which is tough to pigeonhole into a specific genre. There are horror elements, although not graphically gory ones, and an interesting historical storyline. Romance features too, and a wonderful fairy tale sense which I found reminiscent of some of Neil Gaiman's writing and particularly enjoyed. The whole novel certainly has a literary feel to it.

We begin by being swept into the horrors of Second World War battles in France where a young Scottish piper is left for dead and must stagger, blind-mute and alone, towards Dunkirk. He has witnessed unimaginable hatred and violence leaving him haunted by a vision. Decades later his grandson, Neal, starts also having horrific visions, but thousands of miles away and from another time. The family's sixth sense has been passed to him too and Neal must find the source of his nightmare before time runs out for his young son.

Bergin's descriptions of her monstrous creations are perfectly executed to create a truly threatening atmosphere and I found it difficult to set this book aside for just a moment. I had to keep reading! She intertwines romantic scenes and some great humorous moments as Neal fights his attraction to travel shop owner Sarah. And there are some heart-breaking moments as Neal's marriage to fun-loving Vicky begins to implode. I absolutely loved The Piper's Story. Its multi-faceted plots are well-thought through and I would love to read anything further that Bergin writes.

The Western Lonesome Society: A NovelThe Western Lonesome Society by Robert Garner McBrearty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of The Western Lonesome Society from its publisher, Conundrum Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

I was attracted to this novella by its quirky title and by the mentions of similarity to Cormac McCarthy and Kent Haruf - both favourite authors of mine - in the blurb. I really should stop reading blurbs, or at least believing them, as both names were somewhat misleading. McBrearty's previously published books have apparently been short story collections and I found this novella to be more short stories tenuously linked than a narrative in its own right. We swirl around in the possibly disintegrating brain of protagonist Jim, a college lecturer with serious trust and self esteem issues. Jim longs to be a writer telling his family's story so two of the threads are his own kidnap as a child, and a much earlier kidnap of two of his ancestors when they were children. These tall tales are interspersed with others of a young man taking a stripper to Mexico, an extremely unprofessional therapist, a child molester and mentions of an imaginary Ernest Hemingway.

Surprisingly, The Western Lonesome Society is very readable. Its vignettes are often amusing as well as shocking, but it is so jumbled that trying to decide what - if anything - is meant to be the point of the novella turned out to be beyond me.

View all my reviews on Goodreads

So now you've read (or scrolled past!) all three book reviews, let's get to the Giveaway! I am offering one signed paperback copy of The Judas Scar by Amanda Jennings. If you would like to win the book, I have chosen five different Ways you can enter. You can complete as many as you like and each Way is worth one entry into the giveaway. You need to complete Both parts of each though so I will have a record of your entry.

I will keep the Giveaway open for Seven Full Days so it will close at midnight (French time) on the 30th November 2015.

Good luck!

1) Comment on this blog post telling me your favourite book so far this year AND let me know how best to contact you if the comment doesn't automatically link to your Google ID.

2) Add me to your circles on Google+ AND tag me in a post mentioning The Judas Scar Giveaway 
(If I am already in your circles, just tag me in a post.)

3) Follow me @Stephanie_Jne on twitter AND send this tweet: I just entered @Stephanie_Jne #giveaway to win #thriller #book The Judas Scar by Amanda Jennings
(If you already follow me, just tweet the tweet)

4) Add me as a friend on Goodreads AND message me there mentioning The Judas Scar Giveaway. (Already a friend? Just send the message)

5) Favourite an item in my Etsy shop AND send me a convo there mentioning The Judas Scar Giveaway.

Terms and Conditions
At the end of the seven days, all (any?!) entries will be put in my red felt cloche hat and I will get Dave to pick a winner.
I will contact the winner via the method of their winning entry (ie Etsy convo/Twitter tweet/Goodreads message). The winner Must respond with their preferred postal address within 72 hours. If no response is received within 72 hours, an alternative winner will be chosen.
The Giveaway is open worldwide, however I cannot be held responsible if the parcel takes ages to arrive or gets waylaid in the post. (It is getting close to Xmas after all.)

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Finding T E Lawrence again in medieval Aigues-Mortes

Aigues-Mortes is one of the places recommended to us by the guy at Le
Aigues-Mortes walls 
Petit Arles creperie in Arles. The historic town is quite a drive from Castries, however we took this opportunity to view the Camargue delta and at one point drove across the thin strip of land past La Grande Motte. We saw several of the famous Camargue ponies and also two flocks of pink and white flamingos. I don't think we have seen flamingos since Tavira so that was exciting. The whole coastline along here looks as if moths have been at it! Huge lakes and ponds are everywhere although there is now a lot of commercial-industrial building too. We did briefly wonder at the long-term security of people living on what is essentially a flood plain.

Aigues-Mortes is certainly an eye-catching place. The thick medieval
Aigues-Mortes gateway 
stone walls surrounding the old town are maintained to a high standard and I can imagine that this would be a ridiculously busy tourist trap in the height of summer. Yesterday was sunny but with a strong wind so outside the town walls felt distinctly wintry. Sheltered inside, especially in a sunny spot was pleasant. We followed green 'P' signs to a free car park within easy walking of the old town. Near to the first huge gateway were several tall information stands, in French, which told the history of Aigues-Mortes. It was too windy to stop and read all of them, but the list of notable celebrities caught my eye as it included not only T E Lawrence (whose grave we saw in Dorset) who visited in 1908, but also two authors I read not so long ago: Ernest Hemingway stayed a while although we weren't told exactly when, and Alexandre Dumas came here in 1841.

Salt mining has been traced back to Neolithic times here and there has
been practically constant habitation since then. Charlemagne had the Matafere tower built in 793 and Louis IX bought the town and its surrounding lands from the Abbey of Psalmody in 1240. Louis IX ordered the massive fortifications, which were completed under his son's rule, and used Aigues-Mortes as a base for sending mercenaries out to the Crusades.  He took part in two Crusades himself, dying in Tunis during his second. From outside, the walls look impenetrable other than the slender arrow slits. From the inside it is possible to see that each slit has an arched area directly behind it with two bench seats, presumably for the sentries to rest upon while keeping their vigil.

I enjoyed simply walking the streets around Aigues-Mortes and was
Plaque above a house doorway 
suprised at the extent of residential housing within the walls. The commercial streets are limited and are mostly made up of restaurants, regional produce shops, tourist tat and expensive boutiques. I did find one shop I very much liked. Coton House is on Grand Rue Jean Jaures and sells beautiful Indian cotton clothing including medieval style laced dresses. The shop had that vintage-hippy-shop incense scent which I love. The prices were pretty good and I allowed myself to be tempted by a pair of embroidered lounge trousers. My Almerian ones have been worn so much they are starting to fall apart at the seams! We also pondered Camargue rice in a grocer's for a while, but didnt really want to spend €4 a kilo on each type and couldn't decide which of the three to try.

Once back into modern Aigues-Mortes, we paused to admire the wide canal that passes by. It's towpath looked very inviting for a long cycle ride!

Canal de Rhone 

Friday, 20 November 2015

A new home near Castries - Camping Le Fondespierre

The peace at Camping Le Fondespierre is pretty much only broken by the
Castries aqueduct 
dropping of nuts! Oaks, pines and olive trees are here in abundance, and we are glad that we have learned not to pitch up directly under them! No one needs to be woken by the midnight clatter of acorns! The olive trees especially are reminding me of our first winter away two years ago and visiting Rudy and Annick's campsite at Beira Marvao, Portugal. I saw on Facebook recently that they have brought in their olive harvest.

Stone cross outside Camping Le Fondespierre 
Pitches here vary widely in size and shape. Ours is nicely sheltered, but I am not sure we have room to put up the awning. There's a good range of facilities - outdoor gym, table tennis, kids play area and a bouledrome. Most of the shower block is closed off for the winter, however the small room where the winter showers are located has a fantastically efficient heater. I saw mention of a library on the website, but haven't spotted it yet. The bar-pizza area also looked closed up yesterday and I guess any books would be in there. Perhaps an influx of campers for Le Weekend will open the doors? Camping Le Fondespierre is one of the pricier ones at €17.10 per night with our ACSI card and wifi is €10 for three days. I saw this stone cross outside the campsite entrance and we assumed it must be a war memorial. However the base isn't engraved with any names so now we aren't sure quite why it is there.

Yesterday afternoon we took advantage of a quiet back road into the nearest town, Castries, and cycled there for a quick shopping trip. It's a little hilly, but we managed! The supermarket is a Casino which has an odd range of products. I am hoping to visit the large greengrocers next door on our next trip as well as making use of the local butcher and bakers. I wonder when the weekly market is ... ?

Camping Le Fondespierre is located within woodlands that are laced with
walking and mountain biking tracks. Our two hour wander today was reminiscent of Spanish walks again with dusty, stony paths, but also unmistakably French sights such as this avenue of trees. We also found a short section of the incredible aqueduct pictured at the top of this post and below. It was designed by Pierre-Paul Riquet - the same engineer who created the Canal Du Midi - and built between 1670 and 1676, although we have seen a couple of online sources claiming it to be Roman. At almost 7km long, the Castries aqueduct is the largest such structure in France to have been built for an individual person, rather than a municipality. It's only function was to transport water to Castries Chateau! Entirely built from local stone, its arches reach up to twenty metres high in places. There is also a short section underground, and the entire aqueduct has a slope of just three metres over the 7km. It certainly was a delightful surprise to suddenly find ourselves beneath a section and then baffling that it vanished, completely obscured by trees, within just a few minutes of walking away.

Castries aqueduct 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Living by Matt De La Pena / Poems by Edgar Allan Poe / The Colour by Rose Tremain

The Living by Matt de la Pena
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I downloaded a copy of The Living by Matt De La Pena as part of this year's AudioSYNC programme of free YA audiobooks. The book began well with the introduction of various characters on a luxury cruise ship. Our protagonist, Shy, is a Mexican-American teen working on the ship over the summer and we follow him, seeing this amazingly luxurious setting through his less-than-pampered eyes. I liked De La Pena's inclusion of characters from many nationalities, ethnic groups and social classes. He manages to present them all well and this is a definite strength of the book. However Australian listeners should beware of this Brilliance Audio recording. The narrator apparently hasn't ever heard an Australian accent so, for Kevin, he wavers around Dick-Van-Dyke-in-Mary-Poppins for several chapters before finally settling somewhere near Johannesburg. Kevin's supposedly Australian accent never even gets close!

The Living is a book in three distinct parts. The first is set on the cruise ship where we meet nuanced characters in beautifully described surroundings and I was happy to immerse myself in the story. Then a storm hits the ship, followed by The Big One - a giant earthquake in California which leads to a series of devastating tsunami. De La Pena's disaster writing is superb and had me breathless at the characters' predicament. The shipwreck is frighteningly realistic and I then really felt for those few survivors adrift at sea. Five star book to this point.

Then it all goes very weird, plot holes gape at pretty much every turn, and The Living dissolves into a completely different book altogether. And, my pet hate, becomes the First Of A Series thereby allowing the author to believe that he doesn't need to write a proper ending! Grrr! Very disappointing and I won't be risking my time on any further installments.

Poems of Edgar Allan PoeThe Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I tried listening to an Audible download of an Edgar Allan Poe poetry collection several years ago and almost completely failed to get into his writing. When this similar poetry collection was offered as the free daily ForgottenBooks download in September, I thought I should give Poe another chance. His work is so popular worldwide that there must be some essence I had missed.

I am pleased that I did get on better with written Poe poetry than spoken. Being able to revisit lines and ideas definitely helped me to understand and I enjoyed reading his classics such as The Raven and Annabel Lee. (I love Annabel Lee as a Sarah Jarosz song too and hadn't previously realised the origin of its lyrics.) Other poems which particularly spoke to me were The Coliseum and A Dream Within A Dream. However, I didn't like much of the included early poetry written in Poe's youth, and the lengthy Al Aaraaf was lost on me! I passed on most of a play excerpt too - The Politian.

This collection ended with a lengthy essay, by Poe, discussing his poetic principles and quoting from other poets whom he admired. Despite its pompous tone, I did find the ideas interesting and preferred several of the quoted works here to Poe's own. I suppose he is simply not the poet for me!

The ColourThe Colour by Rose Tremain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Buy the paperback from Waterstones

The Colour by Rose Tremain was recommended to us by our friend Frances who was lucky enough to actually visit Hokitika in New Zealand. Therefore, when I saw a copy at Dave's daughter Gemma's house I was very keen to borrow it! Both Dave and have now read The Colour and we both loved the book.

Set in 1860s New Zealand at the height of a gold rush, Tremain manages to brilliantly evoke not only the enthusiasm and dedication of the early white farming settlers but also the madness and extreme endurance of the gold prospectors. I was impressed by her descriptions of the stunning landscapes as well as the contrasting living conditions across South Island. The characters are wonderfully well-drawn too. From underestimated Harriet to hard-done-by Lilian, selfish Joseph and opportunistic Will. Even minor characters such as Lily are perfectly real and believable and the racism shown towards Chinese settlers was depressing to read. I liked the interweaving of Pare's Maori narrative and wondered if an actual Maori folk tale was behind her story or if it was a parallel of the Maori loss of New Zealand to the colonising Europeans.

The Colour is an easy book to read, but one which I think will remain with me for quite a while. I found it difficult to put down and so finished in a day. I am now wishing I had made it last longer!

View all my reviews on Goodreads

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The amazing Parc de Figuerolles at Martigues

We first tried to visit the nearby Parc de Figuerolles on Wednesday not
Bassin d'ornement at Figuerolles 
realising that Armistice Day is a public holiday in France. The car park was absolutely packed solid so we turned right around and went on our lakeside walk at Lavalduc instead. Monday afternoon this week was far quieter so we tried again!

I already knew that Figuerolles covers a lot of ground - it's 130 hectares - but I wasn't prepared for quite how many different areas it has. We began by exploring what I think was once the grounds of a grand house. This tower (below) was constructed in 1899 and recently renovated. It's design is meant to make it appear to be a whimsical pigeon loft although it is actually a water tower and part of the extensive irrigation system for the ornamental gardens. The above pictured Bassin d'Ornement is meant to have 'the charm of a spring in rocky ground' and the 'aspect of a grotto'. Hmmm! Again, its primary purpose is irrigation.

Water tower 
Unknown flowers 
Nearby was a playground for those of 'more than six years old' so guess
who was straight onto the climbing frame? Clue: too high for me! We were impressed by the variety of play equipment at this place, but then later we saw the Go Ape style ropes and zip wires elsewhere. Now that really was a huge playground!

The park has dedicated paths and trails for walking, walking with small children, jogging, and family cycle rides. The walking areas had the same dusty paths and vegetation as I remembered from Alcossebre in Spain. We saw cacti and flowering rosemary. Despite having picked up a map leaflet from the reception we still managed to get turned around and a bit lost in the pine woods. We found and then re-found the VTT (velo tout terrain - all terrain bikes) tracks - pedestrian free areas with Keep Out signs all around and some seriously scary looking ramps and jumps. I thought maybe I could manage the beginners' circuit on my little bike. I probably won't go back to find out for sure though.

Dave sitting in a dinosaur egg 

Our next surprise was the perfect play area for me! I was delighted to
The reading room 
spot this semicircle of reclining wooden seats and its sign declaring an area for reading. Now how incredibly thoughtful is that! Admittedly the seats weren't remotely comfortable and prospective readers are advised to take their own cushions, but even so. Every park should have one!

A tree-shaded area was set aside for pony rides from the equestrian centre, and this was just along from the small farm where ponies, donkeys, goats and sheep, rabbits, geese and peacocks are kept. Their enclosures weren't particularly big for the number of animals in each, but they did all look well cared for. We had noticed a small mixed herd of goats and sheep as we entered the park, together with a couple of chatting shepherds. We commented at the time that this sight was a little odd in France, but thought nothing more of it. Seeing the same animals at the farm, I realised that they must be taken out to graze freely.

Peacock at the farm 

The Parc de Figuerolles is a fantastic resource for the local community and its stop is even included on the main bus route from Massane to Martigues. It's obvious that a lot of thought has gone into what people actually want from this park, and the created areas ha e certainly not been done half-heartedly. Best of all - the whole place, with the exception of the mini train, is free. Even the car park! And, having been pronouncing the name as Fig Rolls all day, reminiscing our childhood memories of them and wondering if they were still made, it seemed only fitting to spot the biscuits at Grand Frais while stopping to shop on the way home!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Two Winter warmer rice pudding dessert recipes

Despite it not being at all cold yet in southern France (yes, I'm gloating!),
my thoughts have still been turning to winter-style foods including hot desserts. Over the past week or so I have made two very different rice pudding desserts, one a variation on the Portuguese arroz doce I blogged a couple of years ago now, and the other my attempt to recreate a Malaysian black rice dessert that we enjoyed at a barbecue dinner while pitched up in Hailsham.

As both these desserts are super cheap to make I am submitting this post to November's Credit Crunch Munch which, this month, is being hosted by Elizabeth's Kitchen Diary. The frugal food recipe sharing challenge was developed by Helen over at Fuss Free Flavours and Camilla over at Fab Food 4 All. If you would like to add your own economical recipe the linkup is at the end of this post and there's some gorgeous looking veggie creations already posted. Dave will be SO excited!!

Chai Arroz Doce is my first recipe. I first tried my hand at creating Arroz
Chai Arroz Doce 
Doce (sweet rice) when we were travelling through Portugal in 2013. The Portuguese are a frugal people and much of their traditional cuisine makes use of cheap ingredients. Arroz Doce is flavoured with cinnamon and citrus fruit zest, but I fancied something a little different so tried substituting a Chai tea bag for the cinnamon stick in my original recipe. It worked a treat and also coloured the pudding a delicate caramel shade.

100g arborio rice
400ml semi-skimmed milk
3 tbsp demerera sugar
1 Chai tea bag

Put the rice, milk, sugar and tea bag into a saucepan. Heat through, stirring continuously.

As soon as the milk starts to boil, turn the heat right down so it carries on cooking at a gentle simmer. Stir every few minutes to stop the rice sticking to the bottom of the pan. Be careful not to stir so vigorously that you split the tea bag!

When practically all the milk has been absorbed and the rice is soft, the pudding is ready. This takes about half an hour. Remove the tea bag and serve immediately, decorated with a scatter of demerera sugar.

* * * * *

We first tried the Malaysian black rice dessert at a barbecue hosted by
Lyekin's Black Rice 
our friends Lyekin and Chris. I admit I had never noticed black rice before so Lyekin kindly gave me some to try cooking with myself. This dessert is vegan as it uses coconut milk. It does take a bit of forethought as the rice needs to soak for several hours before cooking it. A spot of googling led to several recipes for Bubur Pulut Hitam which is certainly similar to what I made, but I am going to call mine Lyekin's Black Rice instead - at least until when she tells me I did it all wrong! I did guess all the ingredient volumes!

60g black glutinous rice
300ml water plus extra for rinsing and soaking
2 tbsp demerera sugar
200ml coconut cream

Rinse the black glutinous rice two or three times, then place in fresh water and leave to soak. Lyekin gave me the snipped instructions from her pack which said to soak the rice for three hours. Other recipes all say to leave it overnight. I soaked my rice for eight hours and this was enough.

Drain and rinse the rice, then place it in a saucepan with 300ml fresh water. Bring to a boil then lower the heat and simmer, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, until the water has been absorbed and the rice is soft. It goes very purple!

Spoon the rice into individual serving bowls and set aside.

Squeeze the coconut cream into a clean (or cleaned) saucepan over a medium heat. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.

Heat the coconut until it is hot, but not boiling. Pour equal amounts into each individual dish and serve immediately. The rice and coconut cream should be in two layers until the diner mixes them up. This turns the white cream a pretty purple colour. (I was too keen on eating to remember a photograph!)

Perhaps 200ml was too much coconut cream, but this was the pack size so I used it all up. And certainly as a dinner party dessert 20g of rice would be plenty per person. However, Lyekin's Black Rice is dangerously moreish!